Saudi Lawyer Takes On Religious Court System

Saudi Lawyer Takes On Religious Court System –
Over the past three years, Lahem has taken on the country’s most controversial and sensitive cases and turned them into high-profile indictments of the justice system. He has been thrown in jail several times and banned from traveling abroad. But he continues to fight what he considers an antiquated judiciary, out of step with basic human rights.

Saudi Arabia’s legal system is based primarily on the principles of sharia, laws derived from Islam’s holy book, the Koran, and on the Sunna, examples from the life of its prophet, Muhammad. Saudi judges follow the official Wahhabi doctrine, the most puritanical and conservative interpretation of Islam, and have wide discretion in handing down sentences.

Lahem’s latest client is a 19-year-old woman who was in a car with a male friend when she was kidnapped and gang-raped by seven men. In November, four of the men received prison sentences ranging from one to five years and 80 to 1,000 lashes, and three are awaiting sentencing. The rape victim was sentenced to 90 lashes for having been with a male friend, which is illegal in this strictly segregated country.

Until the late 1990s, Lahem — who holds a degree in sharia — was an Arabic teacher and an activist with the conservative Islamic Sahwa movement. Like most Sahwa adherents, he wore a long traditional white robe and let his beard grow long and scruffy, considered signs of piety.

His mind-set was similar to that of the austere Wahhabi judges he now battles in court, he explained with a wry smile.

Teaching in the isolated city of Hafr al-Batin, about 250 miles northeast of the deeply conservative Qassim region where he was born and far from his closed Sahwa circle, he discovered different Muslim thinkers, such as the Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It was the first time that Lahem, then in his mid-20s, had read anything outside the official Wahhabi version of Islam taught in school.

His transformation took an even sharper turn when he enrolled in law school in Riyadh. Unlike his strict religious education, his legal studies required ordered, logical thinking, not learning by rote. Students could also argue and discuss concepts with their professors, something impossible in the rigid hierarchy of sharia school.

“From the first class, I fell in love with the law,” Lahem said, extracting a Marlboro from a front pocket and lighting it. “I started learning to depend on my mind, not just on ideas I’d been spoon-fed. It was wonderful. I felt as if I had found something I’d been looking for for years.”

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